There has been a lot of talk about suspensions in the NHL as of late. Although suspensions are a good way to penalize a player when he breaks the rules, it is debatable whether it truly has an impact on his team. The current trend is that the players getting suspended tend to be easily replaceable: it is not the star forward or key defensemen sitting in the press box. More often then not, the players who get suspended are the players who sit on the end of the bench and play very limited minutes. If you look at a list of last season’s suspensions (courtesy of HFBoards), it was players like Patrick Kaleta, Jordan Tootoo, Andy Sutton (twice), Daniel Carcillo, Aaron Asham and Raffi Torres that received substantial suspensions. Of course, there were also key players such as Kris Letang, Max Pacioretty, Shane Doan and Jeff Skinner who also picked up suspensions throughout the season, and their absence was probably noticed by their team. But does not having Raffi Torres in your lineup have the same impact of missing Shane Doan? Of course not. The problem is more often then not it is the Raffi Torres of the team being suspended, and not Shane Doan.
So what can be done to make a suspension really affect a team? Recently, I heard a very interesting suggestion, courtesy of my brother, James. He called me up one night after a game, and told me that a panel of experts had been discussing a way for suspensions to have more of an impact on the team. The suggestion was this: If a player is suspended, the team must dress one less player for each game that the player is suspended.
If you really think about it, it seems to make sense. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle. It happens every now and then that a player gets injured in warm-ups, and the team needs to play one man short. The coach adjusts, and the team fights on. But it’s significant enough the coach needs to work around it and plan accordingly. It is an obstacle nonetheless. It would make players think twice about doing something reckless or dangerous enough to get suspended, knowing that it won’t only be him being punished.
When Trevor Gillies was suspended twice in the 2010-2011 season (9 games for elbowing/taunting an injured player, 10 games for boarding), I highly doubt that the coach lost sleep over who was going to replace him for those 19 games. Being a player who played a very limited number of minutes per game, his absence was not a big issue, and therefore the team was not necessarily punished. If the team then had to play those 19 games one man down, that would be difficult for the team to deal with. Whether it’s 11 forwards or 5 defense men, the team would have to adjust. The coach and the team would hold Gillies much more accountable for his actions, knowing that each loss in those 19 games may have been avoided if the missing player were there.
It should not just be the player that is held accountable, but the team as well. Players never want to let their teammates or coach down, and an enforcer being suspended doesn’t necessarily directly affect their team. However, if their reckless play gets them suspended, resulting in the team playing one man down for x amount of games, then the suspended player has let down his team. His team is held accountable for his actions, and winning becomes that much more of a challenge. Chances are we would less and less plays that result in 1 or 2 game suspensions, such as boarding, kneeing and so on. Players would be forced to think before they did something reckless, knowing that their team will also be punished for their actions. I think this idea should be further considered by all hockey leagues. By making players think before they act, we might see less and less of these reckless plays that seem to be in the sports highlights every night.